Sometimes miners can be a pessimistic bunch. I will acknowledge that some of it is warranted… you won’t get any argument from me that its harder to be a miner today than it was in decades past. More restrictions and regulations are frustrating, no doubt about it. And more generally, it seems like the general public seems to have a greater dislike of anyone who “uses” the land to make money.
This article is not going to dwell on the negatives. In fact, despite the new challenges of being a miner today we still have amazing opportunity. I would argue that a prospector can still find some serious gold today and there are lots of places that you can explore!
How Much Public Land is there?
There are quite literally hundreds of millions of acres that are open to prospecting. Anyone can go out and use small-scale mining equipment (gold pans, sluice boxes, metal detectors, etc.) to look for gold. If you find gold you are free to keep it without telling a sole. You don’t have to report it to the government and you don’t have to pay taxes on it until you sell it.
This public land is generally managed by either the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. Most of it is found in the western United States. There are 18 states with open federal land for prospecting; most of it lies within 12 states. Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Alaska.
Some public lands are also managed by the state rather than on a federal level. These lands can also provide good opportunities, but each state rules will vary so you will need to research each one if you want to prospect on state land.
Where you Can and Can’t Prospect
Generally speaking, the vast majority of the 640 million acres of federal land is open to prospecting. Nothing is stopping you from venturing out and exploring. Load up a backpack with a gold pan and a sluice box and start hunting!
There are exceptions though.
Wilderness areas are off-limits to prospecting. There are often areas of special designation that will also be closed to prospecting to protect various resources.
Just keep in mind that these are exceptions. The vast majority of public lands are indeed open for prospecting. Don’t look at a glass half-full… yes there are places that you can’t prospect, but there are so many more places that you can.
Of course you need to make sure you are on public land and not private land. Usually I find that private land is usually signed pretty well with “No Trespassing” signs, but rather than just assuming that an area will be posted, you should get a good map and make sure you are not on private land before you venture out.
Has All the Gold Already Been Found?
If you’ve done any reading on this website you should know that there is still plenty of gold out there to find. It certainly isn’t uncommon for people to think that the old-timers already found all the gold, but trust me when I tell you that this isn’t the case. The old-timers may have gotten there first and got the “easy pickin’s,” but they left plenty behind for you.
I Don’t Want to Be a Claim Jumper. Is it Safe?
I won’t lie; mining claims are kind of confusing. The general public, and even people just getting started as gold prospectors don’t always know what a claim actually is.
Basically, once a prospector locates a gold deposit, they can file a claim which will give them exclusive rights to the minerals on that claim. It doesn’t mean the ground is private. A mining claim does not limit other people from recreating on the land, it only prevents others from high-grading minerals from the claim.
While people often express concerns about “getting shot” if they trespass on a claim, this is a bit of an exaggeration. Maybe that sort of stuff happened during the gold rush, but I’ve never heard of it happening. Still, it is your responsibility to make sure you aren’t on someone else claim before you start prospecting. They are generally posted, but not always.
I’ve written about mining claims quite a bit already. Read these articles to get some more information on the subject:
How to Stake a Mining Claim on Federal Land in 8 Simple Steps
The 4 Things to Know BEFORE you Buy a Mining Claim
Also worth mentioning… You Don’t Need a Mining Claim to Find Gold. So many people think they need to buy a claim before they start mining. That is totally the wrong way to go about it. You need to actually find some gold before you even think about staking a gold claim.
As the saying goes, don’t put the cart before the horse.
What Kind of Gear do I Need?
The great thing about prospecting is that you don’t need to invest thousands of dollars to get started. All you need is to get yourself a decent gold pan and a few more very basic items and you are well on your way.
If you are in an area that doesn’t have much water, then a metal detector might be best. I love metal detecting and it is a great way to prospect on public land because you can wander around exploring and cover lots of ground. If you are lucky you might even stumble across a big gold nugget like this lucky guy!
The Best Places Start Exploring
As mentioned earlier, most of the public lands in the U.S. are managed by either the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management.
We may be too late for the Gold Rush, but the nice thing about prospecting today is that most of the richest mining areas are well-documented. With a bit of research it isn’t hard to find a rich mining area.
Click on the state that you want to explore using this map below. This provides some good information to help get you started on your hunt for gold.
Just like any other endeavor, I would encourage you to keep a positive attitude when it comes to gold prospecting.
I’ll tell you something that I have experienced as I have met successful prospectors over the years. The once who consistently find gold aren’t complaining about there challenges or struggles. They are out there getting gold! They don’t have any advantages that you or I don’t have, they simply go out there and get it done!
In contrast, go to your local gold club meeting and I guarantee that there will be a group of guys there complaining.
Now I’m not saying that their complains aren’t well founded. In fact, regulation and agency overreach are something that most certainly limit serious mining activity in this country today. There are certainly challenges like the suction dredging ban in California that have seriously impacted miners ability to find gold.
But at some point you need to do what you can do. If I’m being honest, I don’t think these guys lack of success have much to do with regulations, because at the same time there are others out there who are getting it done!
The public lands in the United States still provide an amazing opportunity for gold prospecting. I encourage you to research and locate areas that you can go find some gold.
It’s still out there!
Next: Explore these 19 Mining Areas with Big Gold Nuggets